As K-12 leaders plan how to reopen schools amid the coronavirus pandemic, one challenge that must be resolved is how to keep students a safe distance apart to prevent the spread of the virus.
Leaders are considering many scenarios that would reduce the number of students in each classroom, such as staggering students’ schedules and converting non-instructional spaces into makeshift learning areas that let students spread out throughout the building. One option that would help de-densify classrooms is to hold some classes outside as both spaces and weather permit.
Having classes meet outdoors if possible would allow students to remain comfortably apart in less-confined spaces that are not as conducive to transmitting germs. Aside from significantly reducing the health risks associated with the pandemic, outdoor learning might bring several other benefits as well: Research suggests that outdoor classrooms can improve students’ emotional well-being and even their academic achievement, as just getting outside lifts peoples’ spirits and helps clear their minds.
For instance, one study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that students paid more attention in class after an outdoor lesson. Other studies have linked outdoor learning to reduced stress, more enjoyment of school, and longer retention of information.
How can educators create effective outdoor classroom environments? Here are three key aspects to consider.
With the right mindset and supporting materials, classes can conduct many activities they’d do in a traditional classroom environment outdoors instead: reading, discussion, and reflection can all easily take place outside. If students have mobile devices that are sufficiently charged, and if WiFi extends into outdoor environments, then classes could even do web-based inquiry and work on digital projects as well.
In order to get the most out of outdoor learning experiences, educators should think about how they might take full advantage of being outside by incorporating the setting itself into students’ learning. If students have access to fields, gardens, forests, or other natural environments either on or adjacent to school grounds, then educators might engage students in an inquiry-based exploration of these environments or create other hands-on learning opportunities.
For example, students might collect nature samples or make weather observations for science class. They might take measurements for math class. They might sketch, draw, or paint various natural phenomena for art class.
When planning for outdoor learning activities, educators should consider the learning goals they’re hoping to accomplish and then design activities that will allow students to meet these goals.
Spaces and Materials
The spaces that are available to students also play an important role in defining the kinds of learning activities that classes can do outside.
Nearly any outdoor space can be used to host a class outside: a courtyard or patio, a pavilion or other shady area, or even an athletic field. However, educators should think carefully about where students might sit and how they’ll accomplish the assigned learning tasks.
While students can sit on the ground for short periods, if they’re to be comfortable for an entire class period or longer, some other type of seating would be preferable — such as a picnic table, bench, amphitheater-style seating, or even waterproof cushions. Seating for outdoor learning spaces should be constructed with weather-resistant materials, such as stained wood or thermoplastic-coated steel.
The materials students will need for outdoor learning will depend on the nature of the learning activity. Sidewalk chalk works well for writing on outdoor surfaces, because it washes off easily — and students might find it easier to use mini-whiteboards for taking notes or recording observations in an outdoor setting, because paper might get wet or blow away.
Other common materials for learning and exploring outside include tape measures for taking physical measurements, magnifying glasses for observing, and portable thermometers, probes, or sensors for collecting data. (If students have smart phones, tablets, or small laptops, they can use various apps for measuring and collecting data as well.)
Portable storage totes, trays with lids, carrying cases, or learning center carts can help students carry materials for learning outside. Educators should consider how they can provide enough materials to minimize the need for sharing among students. In addition, students will still need to wash their hands while they’re outside; outdoor spigots or even mobile hand-washing sinks that can be wheeled outside can help.
Working with students in an outdoor learning environment is different than teaching them in a traditional classroom setting. Students might tend to be less constrained in how they act outside. As in any type of learning environment, it’s important to establish and enforce some ground rules and expectations for proper behavior.
Involving students in setting norms for how to behave outdoors can be a powerful experience. When students are included in this process, they tend to take ownership of the rules and are more likely to follow them (as well as monitor each other).
Norms for outdoor learning might include practices designed to keep students safe, such as no wandering off (and, amid the coronavirus pandemic, try to stay six feet apart from your peers at all times if you’re not wearing a mask), as well as practices aimed at respecting nature, such as not straying from established paths and not disturbing animal or plant life.
Make sure students are shown how to use and properly care for equipment as well storage procedures to keep materials intact. Safety and proper usage should be reviewed and reinforced regularly.
Successful Outdoor Learning Can Be Easily Attainable
Outdoor learning brings numerous benefits for students, both academic and social-emotional — and the coronavirus pandemic gives educators yet another strong reason to hold classes outside if possible.
Assuming schools have the outdoor spaces to support it, successful outdoor learning can be achieved without requiring a huge investment in equipment or materials.
Deanna Marie Lock
Deanna Marie Lock is a reputable educational leader with a multifaceted background as an elementary school teacher, assistant principal and principal, Instructional Solutions consultant, Instruction and Intervention Subject Matter Expert, and today as the Director of Category Expertise and Support across all of School Specialty’s target curriculum solutions and widespread product categories. With 18 years spent specifically in the public education sphere, Deanna now uses this in-classroom expertise to add a personalized, intentional approach when professionally advising to an audience she herself had been a part of for nearly two decades. Deanna is passionate about building purposeful long-term internal and external customer connections, and helping students find their passion and highest potential, too!
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